One summer I enrolled in Charles Ely’s ornithology class at Fort Hays State, more for fun than to satisfy any particular course requirement, and eventually it led to more fun than I ever expected.
Chuck was the field biologist, and I was a rambling spectator of fields, and it seemed only natural we would end up working together. After class, I started helping Chuck in his bird-banding operation on campus, and with his endorsement, I got a banding permit and soon was running my own bird-banding station.
We caught most of the birds with mist nets. The nets are strung between two poles like volleyball nets, and they have four parallel pockets, or shelves, to trap the birds. They are made of black nylon material that becomes virtually invisible when placed among trees.
The nets must be checked continuously throughout the day to prevent casualties. The birds are taken out of the net, placed in a cloth bag and brought back to be banded. An aluminum band is placed on a leg just above the foot using a special banding pliers, and after the age, sex and other data are recorded, the bird is released unharmed.
The records are sent to the Bird Banding Lab in Patuxent, Md., where the information is used to study bird migration, longevity, composition by age and sex, annual mortality rates, and management of game populations.
In the first year, I banded 2,823 birds of 60 different species. The most banded bird was the tree sparrow with 717 individuals, followed by the Swainson’s thrush, Harris sparrow, barn swallow, American goldfinch, song sparrow, Oregon junco, house wren, orange-crowned warbler and clay-colored sparrow.
Many of the birds were recaptured locally at various intervals, including the black-capped chickadee, which accounted for the greatest number of returns. A black-billed magpie banded July 21, 1971, was recaptured Dec. 24, 1971, suggesting permanent residency at that time.
One black-capped chickadee later was recovered in Texas, and an Oregon junco was picked up in British Columbia.
Bird banding provided many interesting little adventures. One day a farmer called saying he had trapped a great blue heron in his barn. “Great” is the word for it, for this magnificent heron stands 4 feet tall and has a wingspan of nearly 6 feet. It also happens to have a long, sharp bill for spearing fish.
As I proceeded to grab its leg, the heron, apparently objecting to the indignity of being banded, gave me a sound whack on the head with his bill. I was informed about all the tools of the trade, but no one told me about needing a hard hat.
Another time when I was hiking in a remote area of the Smokey River, I came upon a great horned owl nesting in a hole on the side of a cliff. Hearing this, Chuck decided to band the nestlings.
Taking his grad student with us, we drove out to the edge of a pasture and hiked the good part of a mile to the nesting site. There we drove a stake into the ground above the nest and tied a rope to it. I have no doubt Chuck would have gladly gone down that rope and banded the birds himself, but this time he handed the privilege over to his grad student.
The difference between a bird-watcher and a bird-bander is that one will travel far to see a rare bird, and the other will go out of his way to band a common one.
When I was growing up, I used to bring home an assortment of wild critters, including some orphan birds that had fallen out of the nest. Possessing any migratory bird is illegal now, but bird banding brought back some of the old excitement of that hands-on experience with birds. It is not often one gets a chance to feel the pulse of a yellow warbler or to look a sharp-shinned hawk in the eye.
Banding is a common method of research used in the field study of birds, which Chuck the ornithologist certainly knows something about. Being part of that research was deeply satisfying, but for me, there was another, less scientific, motive for becoming a bander that had to do with a child’s sense of wonder and the nascent thrill of holding a bird in the hand.
I’m sure Chuck knows a little something about that, too.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast living in Ellis County.